It was an old-time Flagler Beach City Commission meeting Thursday evening: yelling, recriminations, veiled accusations, misunderstandings and frustrations, the sort of flare-ups between commissioners not seen since the endless search for a manager five years ago. The fuse this time was the disused 34-acre Ocean Palm Gold Club the city bought in 2013, and the search since for a company to revive the club as a nine-hole golf course.
Thursday’s workshop, a joint affair with the committee appointed to recommend a good use for the property, was to allow three firms the chance to make their pitch. Only two did. The third, Indigo Golf Club of Daytona Beach, bailed at the last minute (in an email at 3:06 p.m.), a snub Commissioner Joy McGrew found “insulting,” while another firm, Pine Lakes Golf Club—whose principal, Chris McLaren, hadn’t so much as walked the old golf course to familiarize himself with it—made it clear that it wasn’t interested in making a full proposal if the city wasn’t going to invest some money in the property. Commissioners made it just as clear that, absent surprises in future negotiations, they were not interested in spending much more than a dime on the property.
That left one company in the running: Flagler Golf Management, which is proposing to get the operation running within 120 days, but in exchange for a 40-year lease, the first five years of which would be at a cost of just $1 to Flagler Golf. Subsequent years would be in exchange for 3 percent of the gross revenue, which Flagler Golf estimates at $470,000 a year, yielding the city all of $1,175 a month (much less than what the property would generate in taxes if it were held privately).
The yelling started when McGrew flatly told Pine Lakes’s McLaren and Doreen Hall that they hadn’t come to the meeting to compete.
Flagler Golf Management in contrast was, she said, “exactly what we asked for as far as what they can do with it, when they can get started, what our percentages are, what we can make, what their percentages are. I mean, if you’d ever taken a piece of meat and splayed it out for the world to see, that’s what they’ve done. That to me speaks volumes as to who truly wants to invest their money into a piece of our property, and that want to do it in a fashion that allows them to do it within 120 days.”
Not wanting to “drag this any longer,” McGrew said, she was prepared to give Flagler Golf Management the nod and move on to the negotiations.
The Pine Lakes officials took issue with the process. Hall said she hadn’t learned about the metting until 24 hours earlier, a claim City Manager Bruce Campbell disputed, saying every one of the three golf firms was invited, with a list of matters to be discussed—called “Subjects To Be Discussed”—on Sept. 10. Nevertheless, McLaren said it would take him three weeks to prepare a detailed proposal, and “I don’t want to put three weeks into that kind of work if it’s not going to fly.”
Commissioner Steve Settle got on Campbell’s case for not getting enough proposals—“I’m very disappointed in you Bruce,” he said at one point, a notable reversal from a Campbell supporter—while Campbell himself said he could not control who did and did not submit proposals: the market is such that there aren’t too many interested parties. In fact, golf has been in a depression, with hundreds of golf courses closing every year since before the Great Recession. Golf courses that open are the exception, not the rule.
“Right now I’ve got one thing to look at and I’m supposed to make a decision whether it’s good for the people of Flagler Beach based on one thing?” Settle said.
“We’d all like to have the door being broken down with people coming forward,” Campbell said. “Again, that isn’t the case.”
It was left up to Sharon Andre, a member of the so-called alternative use committee set up to determine the fate of the golf course, to point to what may have been an elephant in the room: “You bought this property without any investigation, with just a hope that you could turn it into a golf course,” she said.
Michael Flank, another member of the committee, also reminded the commission that the one thing all committee members agreed on was that there would be no further spending by the city on the course.
Pine Lakes’s officials want the city to invest money in the course before they take it over. “We have a fundamental difference as to how it’s going to be financed,” McLaren said. “You can’t have it both ways.” (McLaren had not endeared himself to an audience of a few dozen when he said his approach to managing critters on the course would be to kill them. “We just make sure birds don’t fall out of the sky,” he’d said, sending a few eyes rolling skyward.)
Settle pushed back against McGrew’s wish to fast-track the matter, while Commission Chairman Marshall Shupe said the commission will weigh in again to determine what proposals to look at—assuming more proposals would be turned in. After back and forth between the commissioners, some of it heated, Commissioner Jane Mealy proposed the sort of compromise that led to a consensus: they would take on the issue at the Oct. 22 meeting, giving all interested parties ample time to submit fuller proposals by then. Whether Pine Lakes will do so or not is unclear, though if its starting point still requires the city to put in money of its own, it’ll be a moot point.
That’s not to say that Flagler Golf Management’s Duane McDaniel and partner Terrence McManus will be the chosen ones, with the proposal they submitted. Commissioners, among them Kim Carney, are already grumbling about leasing the property for just $1 over the first five years, and about the 40-year term of the lease—an unheard of length in government agreements. Flagler Beach’s lease with the Funky Pelican, the old Pier restaurant, considered lengthy at the time, is for 10 years, with three five-year renewals.
“If we make a mistake we’re not going to have a second chance at this,” Settle said—unless, of course, the city scales back the length of the lease.